Alumni Series: On Being a Woman in S.T.E.A.M. and Fighting Imposter Syndrome

Virginia Chen is no stranger to male-dominant industries.

Prior to finding App Academy (through a friend’s recommendation), Virginia studied biomedical engineering in college then went on to work in project management for a tech consulting firm.

“I’ve personally never felt difficulty navigating mh job as a woman, says Chen.” “In fact, prior to App Academy, all of my teams have had more males on them. But I still think a lot of companies are very far off. I think they’re noticing and making more pointed hires.”

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Now a Senior Software Engineer at Affirm — as part of the Merchant Interfaces team — Virginia reflects on what she was missing in roles prior to taking App Academy’s 16-week immersive bootcamp.

“I kind of decided this [consulting] was something I might be good at, but I learned I didn’t actually enjoy being a consultant. You were there to build a relationship and determine what your client needs; I missed the technical aspect.”

After a friend recommended coding bootcamps to her, Virginia weighed her options and wound up starting with App Academy over other programs like Hack Reactor in May 2017. One of the selling points was how rigorous App Academy was made out to be by former alumni; a challenge was exactly what Virginia wanted.

“That was something that I liked — how intense it was. I wasn’t challenged in my post-college job, and I liked having a whole classroom of people to go through it with. You spend so much time in the classroom with these people and the TAs, so that is really helpful.”

Despite having a background in S.T.E.M.,Virginia found it hard to compare biomedical engineering with software and program engineering. The hard work and long hours came naturally to her, but the course material and condensed learning format were all new.

One part of the App Academy experience she doesn’t look back on with such fondness was the job search process — and she hopes prospective students considering a career in software engineering heed warning, no matter what avenue you take to getting there.

“Searching for jobs was definitely the least fun part of the whole process. Having classmates made it a lot more manageable, though. We’d whiteboard interview questions and work with each other to practice.”

“Not a lot of bootcamps provide career coaches or other resources as you’re going through the job search process, so that was a big plus to App Academy. When you did get offers, you were able to ask them if they thought the salary was fair for your area and if the benefits package was enticing enough. They had a better idea of what was and should be expected.”

Though App Academy now works directly with companies like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft, our partnership pipeline wasn’t as filled out then as it is now. “You felt a little on your own, but there was never competition amongst your cohort members — even if you were applying for the same jobs.”

Finally, Virginia landed her first job at Redbubble, where aspects like pair programming carried over from the classroom and she was able to collaborate with more senior engineers on projects. While she learned a lot, it was hard to not succumb to imposter syndrome.

“You definitely feel a lot of imposter syndrome. I did, at least,” she recalls. “I learned a lot from senior engineers but it also became really stressful when they were working right alongside of you, seeing everything you were doing.”

Bootcamp grads notoriously experience imposter syndrome. Even 58% of engineers at some of the largest companies in the world say they don’t feel like they deserve their jobs, despite their accomplishments.

Virginia experienced this, too.

“I took some classes using my company’s learning stipend to learn more skills and topics that non-traditional engineering students can use,” says Virginia, in an effort to boost her skills outside of the work and what she learned in the classroom setting. She hoped they would help her feel more confident in working within her team.

Whatever those classes were, they certainly helped: She left Redbubble in September 2019 to take a Senior position with Affirm the same month. Now, her team is predominantly female, but she recognizes that’s unique to her company.

D&I is top of mind for almost every organization in tech right now, but it doesn’t end with hiring women, POC, and other minority groups — you have to promote them, too. “Even though there has recently been a push to hire more women, it’s disproportionately more entry-level. I would love to see more women in management,” Chen states.

While much of the responsibility for diversity in tech falls to companies, it also begins with bootcamps and other programs designed to help people launch their career. Making that education accessible and available to all starts at the ground floor, which is why we’ve partered with Facebook to offer $500,000 in scholarship money to women and other underrepresented populations.

As for Virginia’s App Academy bootcamp experience? “I’m so glad I did it,” she recalls. “I love being a software engineer. It’s pretty crazy what you can learn in three months to be able to change your career. I think that speaks to how rigorous the course really is, but it has to be. It prepares you for the real world.”


Virginia is an App Academy alumni and a full-stack software engineer passionate about building creative applications that fill a need. You can learn about her work at: virginiachen.me

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Written by Courtney Grace

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